September 2014

The Nation Reviewed

The year of ruling dangerously

By Nick Feik
Illustration
The Abbott government has achieved only chaos in its first year

So what has the government actually done,” asked News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt in early August, “to reassure the party faithful that, yes, this is a Liberal government?”

It was a testament to how badly Tony Abbott’s government was faring, as it approached its first anniversary, that even its most strident ideological supporters were starting to sheer off in anger and disappointment.

The previous week had been a disaster. After Employment Minister Eric Abetz denied the scientific consensus on abortion and women’s health, Attorney-General George Brandis displayed the policy grasp and tech savvy of an insistent drunk at the bar, and Treasurer Joe Hockey complained that everyone was against him, it was clear the nation wasn’t going to unite around Team Australia, not that week anyway.

The only answers that Bolt came up with to his own rhetorical question were the repeal of the carbon tax and stopping the boats. And it’s not as if Bolt was omitting achievements not to his liking (knights and dames notwithstanding). After almost a year, the Abbott government has repealed one tax, a move that left the nation without a climate-change policy but had no discernible impact on prices, and implemented an increasingly inhumane, secretive and quite possibly illegal asylum-seeker regime designed in large part by the ALP.

At the time of writing, it had passed a total of six pieces of legislation.

“Of course, the government is not Labor, a virtue in itself,” Bolt added, trying to console himself and loyal readers.

Bolt was ignoring some of the government’s work, though. The Coalition may not have many achievements, but it has been good at undoing things. It has cut funding to social, educational, health, research and advisory bodies. Any and every environmental action, movement, organisation or legislation has been made a permanent target.

Now consider what the government has not done – what it has attempted but failed at, or allowed to fail through inaction.

In the first few weeks after the federal election in September 2013, evidence of travel rorts came to light. Initially the government denied there was a problem, leaving it to fester. Then the government acknowledged serious breaches had occurred, and promised to deal with them, but did nothing substantial. This response was indicative of much of what was to follow.

Despite the pledge that this was a grown-up government “open for business”, its first important foreign investment decision, to block a $3.4 billion American takeover of GrainCorp, said the opposite.

Abbott and team then had brief moments of ideological coherence as they argued for the end of corporate welfare, but the net result was the end of the auto-manufacturing industry in Australia. Qantas and SPC Ardmona survived, but the government still lacks industry and jobs policies for those out of work.

Christopher Pyne’s attack on the Gonski reforms undermined any sense of careful, considered government. Contrary to all previous commitments, Pyne bravely strapped on an Abbott-approved vest, stepped into the education sector and blew himself up.

It was a pattern of behaviour that would become familiar: an act with purely ideological motivation that neither the public nor industry supported; a minister without a detailed plan for reform; a leadership unprepared for the backlash; and no way forward. The government retreated within days, humiliated.

Brandis’ attempt to amend the Racial Discrimination Act was more of the same.

The announcement in May of the federal budget, a key moment in the first year of a government, was the epicentre of the Coalition’s political disasters. The public was prepared for a bitter pill and would have taken it – just as they had supported John Howard and Peter Costello’s tough first effort in 1996 – if the budget had been remotely reasonable or equitable. It was neither, and everyone knew it. The slew of broken election promises was equally damaging. Subsequent refusals to admit that they had misled the public only made Abbott and his colleagues appear more untrustworthy.

Many of the proposed measures seemed designed to punish the ordinary Australian. These included university-fees deregulation; health cuts and cost-shifting to the states; a Medicare co-payment; increased petrol excise; and changes to the family tax benefit, unemployment benefits and pension indexation. Some measures, such as privatisation plans (“asset-recycling”) and cuts to the ABC and SBS, have never had public support and probably never will.

The changes to the unemployment scheme were the government’s attitude to poor people writ large: gratuitously cruel. At the same time, the budget did nothing to reduce the tax concessions and industry subsidies that the rich and well-connected enjoy.

Most of the budget measures are in legislative limbo, for the same reason that the paid parental leave scheme and Direct Action climate-change plan stalled: the government doesn’t have the public backing. It hasn’t managed to mount substantial arguments for most measures. The Coalition lacks the political competence to build a case for anything unpopular – it has already forfeited the trust of the public and of most crossbench senators.

In an effort to head off growing criticism, the Liberal brains trust issued new talking points, stressing pragmatism and openness to negotiation.

“The groaning burden of buyer’s remorse has been acknowledged by the Abbott government,” wrote Malcolm Farr on news.com.au, “and the prime minister last week began steps to placate his political customers.”

But either the message wasn’t received in time by many commentators or it wasn’t enough to sway them. Paul Kelly and Dennis Shanahan of the Australian had already penned columns acknowledging that the Abbott government wasn’t doing at all well.

“Abbott is struggling to deliver on the style of government he pledged: an adult government of consistency, traditional cabinet process and ‘no surprises’,” observed Kelly. Both he and Shanahan invoked the dysfunction of the Rudd–Gillard era. In their eyes, what could be worse?

Bolt, however, was intent on resoldering the government to its ideological base. Sensing a government wavering over its ideological commitments, he leapt in, along with his fellow travellers at the Institute of Public Affairs, to criticise the Coalition for everything from dropping its plans to amend the Racial Discrimination Act (“frightened off by the Muslim lobby”) to over-funding the ABC. He was trying to drag it back out to the right, regardless of what the public want.

And here’s the rub: with the government labouring to achieve anything substantial, with its agenda mired and morale shaky, supporters, commentators and party members are all urging radically different paths back to electoral popularity.

Where does it go from here?

Process is clearly a problem for the Abbott government. It’s not just Abbott’s “captain’s picks” or the whims of ministers and their boosters (the bigot laws for Bolt or marriage-counselling vouchers courtesy of Kevin Andrews). The government also seems to rely heavily on the findings of stacked inquiries and responds to the lobbying of vested interests, whether in the media, banking, mining, gambling or retail. But it rarely acts in response to scientific or policy evidence. This might not be a problem if it had the talent to override the normal laws of politics, but every single one of the government’s main spokespeople, except perhaps Malcolm Turnbull and the sole woman, Julie Bishop, has damaged themselves badly, some perhaps irreparably: Eric Abetz, Greg Hunt, Kevin Andrews, Christopher Pyne, Peter Dutton, David Johnston, Scott Morrison and George Brandis. This, mind you, is their “A-team”.

Hockey was once thought to be an effective politician, but his reputation is now in tatters. He gives the impression that he wouldn’t know a poor person if he drove past one. Hockey and Mathias Cormann provided the defining image of the Abbott government’s first year. Kicking back outside a Parliament House office with their cigars, the treasurer and the finance minister were congratulating themselves on a job well done before they’d even delivered their first budget. Entitlement, that’s what it’s called.

Unemployment, now at a 12-year high, is rising. The budget is blowing out. The “infrastructure prime minister” has built nothing. The outlook for the government is bleak, because the Opposition and crossbenchers have no incentive to start co-operating, especially on unpopular budget items. Beyond the budget, it’s unclear whether the government has a legislative agenda of any kind. Perhaps this explains recent efforts to reposition Abbott as an international statesman, in charge of keeping Islamic terrorism, Russian tyranny and Scottish independence at bay. He needs to be above the fray, because domestically his troops are stuck in the trenches, and they’re starting to turn on one another. They must be relieved the Opposition is showing no stomach for a fight. 

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is a former editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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